If I had a pound for every time I’ve been told “I’m not good at yoga because I’m not flexible” or “I can’t do yoga, I don’t have flexibility” or something along those lines… I’d be, well… maybe not rich, but I’d certainly have a big jar full of coins!
This usually comes from people who are interested in yoga, perhaps would like to try it, or maybe have tried once or twice. But don’t know enough about it and perhaps feel intimidated to try a class. I get it. Or maybe it’s their polite way to tell me… ‘I don’t really want to try, so just shut up about yoga already…”. But of all the excuses that is probably the one that holds the least weight!
Actually, not being naturally flexible is probably the best thing that could happen to you in this case. The practice of yoga will increase your range of motion, and by gaining flexibility in the muscles you may enjoy overall good health.
But those who are already flexible tend to be more at risk of injuries. Many bendy students have a tendency to bypass their core stability and integrity in their body. Yoga practitioners striving for more and more flexibility increase their risk of tendon, ligament and joint over-stretching… so, not good!
Why is it that so many people believe in the flexibility myth in yoga?
The image that many people hold of yoga being full of super bendy people is deeply rooted in what we’ve seen in the media, mainly in recent years. We are bombarded by images of people in ever increasing extreme poses, looking radiant, beautiful and peaceful. That seems to send the message that the bendier you are, the ‘better’ at yoga you become… and the happier you’ll be.
There are way too many wrong things with the image of ‘yogis’ in recent social media, mainly instagram, to even try to cover it all here. We are after all, only talking about flexibility today.
We are bombarded by images that seem to indicate that you have to look a certain way, be a certain way, to practice yoga. That way tends to be female, white, thin and… bendy! You don’t. Thankfully, we are making advances in diversity in yoga… But there’s still a very long way to go.
In a world fraught with chronic health problems, mental illness and stress, we need yoga more than ever. We can’t afford to exclude people from yoga, because they think yoga is not for them.
Back to the flexibility myth.
Fact: you don’t have to be flexible to start practicing yoga. But depending on your body shape and how you practice, you may become more flexible.
You will gain flexibility along by practicing! It’s almost inevitable, but it’s not the goal, neither a requirement to start. It’s like saying… I can’t go to nurse school because I can’t apply a bandage… or I can’t play the piano because I had one lesson and I didn’t play Mozart to perfection… or… well, you get the idea. You get better at things by practicing. And if you are practicing movements that are elongating your muscles and that are helping your mobility, then… with time… well, logic dictates that you’ll be more mobile and have more elongated muscles!
Maybe you will never be as flexible as a circus contortionist, and that’s actually a good thing. (Unless your dream is to become a circus contortionist).
So now, we’ve established that flexibility isn’t a goal in yoga… It’s a side effect. And like all side effects it may or not occur.
Then why so many images of Ms Elastic?
Well, I think that yoga attracts already elastic people. Many yoga teachers seem to have a background in dance, in gymnastics. Yoga in the west has been focusing a lot on the physical aspect, and especially in the flexibility aspect…therefore it has attracted people who was already naturally flexible.
We all like feeling we are good at something, and if flexibility is my super power, or at least something I am good at, then I will naturally gravitate towards activities that praise it. And since I am putting work on that aspect of my training… guess what? I become even more flexible, which gains more ‘ohhhhss…’ and ‘ahhhhsss’ of praise.
That praise will invite more images of bendy people, because we all like to ‘show off’ our new tricks, and we all like to be liked, so we post more images in social media… and that attracts more bendy people, who also post pretzel like images… and so on and on and on…
Just to clarify: I’m not ‘bendy-ist’. I have bendy friends. I may even be one of them myself!
I have taken such photos myself, and my friends left comments, impressed that I can reach beyond my toes, or flatten my torso on the floor.
But that doesn’t mean I’m good at yoga, flexibility hasn’t made good at yoga… because doing poses doesn’t equate to ‘good yoga’.
Gosh, stretching doesn’t even equate to yoga at all! A dancer or a gymnast can stretch much further and more beautifully !
But since today we are talking about stretching in yoga, that we’ll do.
“Stretching your body is a good thing. It is healthy for the muscles to be stretched and the myofascia to be under tension, especially when the body is well aligned.
Stretching promotes circulation and therefore keeps the joints and muscles flexible and juicy and keeps the body supple and vibrant. In addition, connective tissue is responsible for your body awareness. Supple and hydrated fascia give you a sense of spaciousness and connectedness to your body as the nerves in the fascia can optimally communicate with your brain. Furthermore, the connective tissue in your body is also partly responsible for your proprioception, your body’s sense of where it is in space and how it relates to itself. The practice of yoga and stretching muscles certainly contribute to body awareness and overall good health.” – Sandra Carson for Ekhart Yoga
Great, so it’s good to stretch!
What is not good is to push beyond your body’s current limits. You can, and should, challenge your body’s capabilities, but like a game of cat and mouse, you have to be patient and go at its own pace, not yours.
Another ‘no-no’ is to just stretch without also engaging the muscles and stabilising the body at the same time… you know, just ‘plonking’ into the stretch ‘because I can’ easily!
Unfortunately, I practiced on my own for years, and even had teachers that would tell me to push harder and go further. I once had a teacher sit on my back in a forward fold, even though my chest was already on my legs! How much further did they want me to go? I was confused, and not to comfortable… but I wanted to please, and I wanted to ‘do it right’… even though I had no idea, what right was. Unsurprisingly, I have a few injuries affecting my joins.
Funnily enough, I started ‘advancing’ further in my physical yoga practice by following the path of least resistance…backing off in poses, allowing myself to stop at a comfortable level of stretch that feels really good and relaxing to breathe into. By just letting go of ‘the shape’ I’m supposed to achieve, and by listening more to my body.
Now, I know that you are your best teacher and that a good yoga practice’s first step has to be awareness of your own body. By being your best teacher, I don’t mean to just do whatever you fancy! Not at all, you need to still find teachers that will guide you and challenge you. But use your intuition and the knowledge of your own body to find those teachers!! No all teachers are for all students.
In my classes I make a lot of emphasis in finding the energetic forces in your body in any given asana, the different directions in which the body can go. In what moments we find pull, or push and in what direccion. And finding the balance between steadiness and ease…, or strength and flexibility.
And that balance may feel or look very different from body to body.
Let’s get rid of the idea that a pose needs to look a certain way, because then we’ll finally get rid of the idea that our bodies have to look a certain way to succeed in yoga, or in life!
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